Collapse from Within

In the book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday includes a quote from Aristotle about success, ” Without virtue and training it is hard to bear the results of good fortune suitably.” Holiday includes this quote in a section of the book about Howard Hughes, the aviator, genius, and businessman who did some incredible things with his fortune, but ultimately crashed in a wasteland of his own ego. Hughes, Holiday explains, received a great deal of sustainable wealth as an inheritance from his father’s business and channeled that wealth into movie projects, a giant wooden plane that only flew once, and many other ventures that sometimes succeeded but more often failed to take flight.

 

About Hughes directly Holiday writes, “Howard Hughes, like so many wealthy people, died in an asylum of his own making. He felt little joy. He enjoyed almost nothing of what he had. Most importantly, he wasted. He wasted so much talent, so much bravery. so much energy.”  A common story arc that we have likely seen play out in real life as well as in movies or books is of someone achieving success and forgetting to keep doing the things that brought them success to begin with. The drive to be great can become overwhelmed by thoughts about how smart, how hard working, and how much better than everyone else the successful person had to be in order to reach the goal they sought after. When that happens, it is easy to forget the habits that drove success and clear thinking is replaced by ego. The ego begins to tell us that we don’t need to work hard, that we should seek attention and praise for who we are and what we have accomplished, and it begins to cloud our judgement and lead us to believe that we will be successful no matter what we do.

 

Holiday also writes, “We know that empires always fall, so we must think about why–and why they seem to always collapse from within.” Howard Hughes collapsed from within. He received so much wealth that he could spend it on whatever caught his eye and he could pursue goals that in hindsight seem laughable. He could whip up a storm of enthusiasm about flawed projects and use his wealth to suggest that he would succeed, as if the wealth accumulation of the past had any bearing on his future success and insightful thinking. In our own lives, we must recognize what parts of us threaten success when we achieve it. If we fail to be aware of things we pursue on purely egotistical grounds, then we too risk collapsing from within. On the other hand, however, if we recognize the pull of the ego, we can push back and remain humble, helping us make clear decisions and continue to work toward goals that truly matter once we have started to feel real success in our lives.

It Comes Down to Purpose

John Boyd was a brilliant military officer, strategist, and consultant who helped shape a generation of military leaders. Boyd is the focus of one chapter in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, titled, “To Be or To Do?” Boyd, Holiday explains, was a terrific air force pilot and a very insightful and influential mind within the armed services. He raised to the rank of Colonel,  but never was promoted to become a General and is not someone that most people have ever heard of. What Boyd represents for Holiday, and why he is an important figure for the book, is someone who chose his duty and service to his country over his own power, pride, and greed. Boyd set out to be the most meaningful version of himself possible, not to be the most impressive, rich, or comfortable version of himself. Holiday wrote the following about a piece of advice that Boyd gave to a young officer (emphasis Holiday’s),

 

“The choice that Boyd puts in front of us comes down to purpose.  What is your purpose? What are you here to do? Because purpose helps you answer the question “To be or to do?” quite easily. If what matters is you – your reputation, your inclusion, your personal ease of life-your path is clear: Tell people what they want to hear. Seek attention over the quiet but important work. Say yes to promotions and  generally follow the track that talented people take in the industry or field you’ve chosen. Pay your dues, check the boxes, put in your time, and leave things essentially as they are. Chase your fame, your salary, your title, and enjoy them as they come.”

 

What we can learn from Boyd’s life is that there are often conflicts and decisions that we have to make about doing meaningful and valuable work and trying to receive recognition and praise for who we are and what we do. Quite often, we can do meaningful things and be well compensated and rewarded, but not to the same degree as those who may do less meaningful things but make more of an effort to capture attention, please others, and maintain the status quo which rewards the talk but not the walk. This can be seen in the way that we compensate teachers relative to financial traders or in the way that lawyers like Bryan Stevenson working to protect the rights of death row inmates are compensated relative to lawyers like Michael Cohen who have worked in less meaningful fields for wealthy and powerful clients.

 

The lesson that Holiday tries to teach with the life of Boyd is that we can be content with living a life where we don’t feel that we get all the dues we deserve, where we don’t get all the praise and attention from others that we may feel we have earned, and where we are not always recognized for our valuable contributions equal to the impact of those contributions. But living this life is not somehow a loss. The praise and recognition I just described ultimately hold no real value in our lives. Making a difference, working on meaningful projects and helping shape the world around us in a positive direction is what brings true value and meaning to life. The conflict is that success is typically viewed through the lens of the first set of rewards, and it is true that we need to earn a decent wage to be able to eat, house ourselves, and live comfortably and happily. I don’t exactly do a great job of following the advice of Holiday in my own life, but it is helpful to keep his advice in mind and recognize when I am living for my ego and pursuing recognition and praise as opposed to when I am living to do meaningful work and striving to make a difference in the world.

Why We Don’t Talk Honestly About Mobility

A hidden conversation is constantly taking place in the United States. It is a conversation about who is deserving, who is successful, and who has done better for themselves than other people. The measuring stick for these conversations is financial wealth, and we don’t have this conversation out in the open. Instead, we have this conversation covertly, by expressing who we are with the things we have and the places we go. Having the most stuff, the most expensive car, the biggest house, and taking the best trips is a sign of success, and all these factors allow us to compare ourselves to those who have and do not have as much as we do. Our country tells us that material wealth is what we should desire, and we tell ourselves that anyone can achieve great wealth as long as they try hard. Those who don’t achieve great wealth, in this conversation, obviously are not hard working, and didn’t get the memo that bettering themselves and working hard is the way to be successful in our country.

Michelle Alexander would like to change the way this conversation takes place. Specifically, Alexander wants to address caste systems in America and highlight the lack of mobility in our country. In The New Jim Crow she writes,

“Conversations about class are resisted in part because there is a tendency to imagine that one’s class reflects upon one’s character. What is key to America’s understanding of class is the persistent belief—despite all evidence to the contrary—that anyone, with the proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult, but the key to our collective self image is the assumption that mobility is always possible, so failure to move up reflects on one’s character. By extension, the failure of a race or ethnic group to move up reflects very poorly on the group as a whole.”

By anchoring success around financial wealth, we create a zero sum system where more wealth for one person means less wealth for another. This is a broad overstatement to be sure, but it is the way that many people feel, and it is accurate when comparing success defined by material wealth with success defined by many religious ideals, or success defined by service and impact within the community. We avoid talking honestly about mobility challenges, because to remedy the problem means to give up some level of material success so that others may join in. This reduces our measuring stick of success and gives others an unfair leap up the ladder of financial success, at least as we understand it.

Our nation will never see racial equity if we continue to think of success purely in financial terms and if we ignore the ways that our society has embraced racial and economic castes. We must be honest about the lack of mobility within our society and recognize that a drive toward material wealth is a drive toward a goal that we cannot control on our own. Individuals and groups may be hard workers, but not all hard work is rewarded with wealth. The impact of our effort is not always reflected by our salaries, and the total of our bank account is often impacted by factors beyond our control. In a nation that in its history has implemented policies to minimize the wealth accumulation of black people while enhancing the wealth accumulation of white people, we should be honest about our caste system and about the ways in which economic mobility has been denied to certain people. Our current system ignores the reality of financial wealth, encourages sometimes dangerous competition in a zero-sum world, and pretends that everyone can be upwardly mobile as long as they have the right character traits.

How Effective Altruists Capitalize on Capitalism

In his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer explains the way he thinks about economic objectives, equality, and how capitalism affects the American public.  Singer is globally focused on reducing the suffering of people in extreme poverty and what he explains in his book is that the levels of extreme poverty seen in the united states are far lower than levels seen in other countries. He also explores the idea that to be poor in the United States is better than to be poor in developing countries where there is not a structure of assistance and where there are not wealthy people who are able to make donations to help others.
Singer focuses on the idea of the wealthy helping those who are not as fortunate in his book, but his ideas of wealthy might not align with ours. With his global focus he sees ways in which the average American is vastly more wealthy than most people living throughout the world. Even though we may not consider ourselves wealthy, we are often much better off in the United States, and we often have a much greater opportunity to help others through doing good.
Capitalism in The Most Good You Can Do is explored as the source for both the great wealth in the United States even though it is also a source for great inequality within the our country and the global community. Interestingly, Singer views equality as a secondary goal or a useful byproduct of a society focused on doing good. He writes, “effective altruists typically value equality not for its own sake but only because of its consequences.” I would argue that Singer greatly values political equality and social equality since somewhere at the base of effective altruism one must believe that those who they are helping are equals because we are all human. However, the idea of everyone being on equal footing socially and economically is not a key aspect of effective altruism.  Effective altruists are not driving for more wealth and more things, but may drive toward greater salaries because it means they will have a chance to do more and provide more for those who are in the most unfortunate of situations.
“No doubt capitalism does drive some people into extreme poverty — it is such a vast system that it would be surprising if it did not — but it has also lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty.  It would not be easy to demonstrate that capitalism has driven more people into extreme poverty than it has lifted out of it; indeed there are good grounds for thinking that the opposite is the case.”
Singer’s quote shows that our economic system cannot be blamed for the greatness of our society nor for its shortfalls. People within the same system experience greatly different pressures and outcomes, but what determines the overall health of our society is how we use the system in place. In capitalism the very wealthy have taken advantage of the system to benefit themselves, which is a side effect of the system that does deserve criticism.  I would argue that on the other end of the system, thinking of a socialist or communist society, we would fear that those who are the most disadvantaged would find ways to take advantage of the system as opposed to those who are the most wealthy.
The argument that I believe Singer would make, in regards to capitalism, is that those who do become super wealthy, or even moderately wealthy (which may mean the average American when we adopt a global perspective), can do the most good by choosing to redirect their resources to causes that they can meaningfully impact and that will meaningfully impact the lives of those who suffer the most.  Without a capitalistic system that allows us all to obtain the most wealth possible, we lose the opportunity to do the most good possible. A focus on social responsibility within a capitalistic society, Singer would argue, is the greatest change and source of positivity the world can provide.